Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Palm Beach Story

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The Palm Beach Story is one of the first classic films I saw that I wasn't so crazy about. I decided to give the film another chance today:

The gist of the film:

The film stars Claudette Colbert as Geraldine and Joel McCrea as husband Tom. Tom is struggling financially as an inventor. Thinking outside of the box, Geraldine decides that since she's a poor housewife anyways, the best way she can help her husband is to divorce him, date wealthy men, and get them to invest in his dream project. Like most of the audience, he thinks this is ridiculous, but she still runs away from him without any money. Being a good looking woman in despair, she seems to make her way. First, the members of the "ale and quail" club agree to sponsor her train ride out of a sense of camaraderie and charity.

"Ale and quail," as you can guess, means they're a group of guys who enjoy getting drunk and firing guns and aren't self-controlled enough to wait until they reach their destination. Segue to the funniest scene in the movie (although, it's somewhat of a weakness that it comes in the middle and has little to do with the actual plot).

Scared to death, Geraldine escapes to another part of the train where a man (Rudy Vallee) lets her sleep in the upper birth which sets up the second act. It turns out that he's super-wealthy, the perfect gentleman and highly single. In the meantime, the husband is given funding by a character known as the weenie king (he is one of the highlights of the movie) to track her down, and they all get embroiled in a love triangle further complicated by the arrival of the millionaire's aggressively single sister (Mary Astor).

Let's get the feminist commentary out of the way:
In any universe other than a screwball comedy from Hollywood's Golden Age, Geraldine would either be a dishonest whore who robs rich men of their money for her boyfriend, or simply a dissatisfied wife leaving her husband. Instead, the entire plot rests upon us accepting the premise that this woman is too naive to understand her plan fully. Nearly every advance Geraldine makes is through the efforts of some man who found her attractive.

While this all seems awful on paper, it's through Claudette Colbert's convincing portrayal of an independent and determined woman that this isn't as bad as it sounds.
She comes across as Mary Tyler Moore trapped in an era where woman had no rights. It certainly makes for intersting gender commentary.

Suffice it to say, there's a lot to discuss here. This film would give a women's studies major enough material for a semester's worth of term papers.

My take:
I still wouldn't consider this a great, classic film, although the whole look into gender politics was kind of interesting. The film is a bit short and some of the best scenes feel rushed or misplaced. It starts picking up as a great comedy of errors with misplaced identities in the third act but we don't see much of that at all. The moments where things are really firing on all cyllinders take up about 15 minutes of the film. Without saying how it ends, the ending is also kind of lazy and dissatisfying.

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